Freedom to Search: Google and Others Launch Free Online Legal Research Tools

Carl Malamud believes in the power of data. The maverick author, publisher and public domain advocate believes no one should have to pay to access the documents that make up "the operating system of our society." In the past decade, he's been the mastermind behind bringing the SEC's EDGAR database online, publishing the entire Code of Federal Regulations on the Internet and creating a bulk repository of patents.

But some think that fee is too high, and many attorneys are dissatisfied with how PACER archives and organizes documents. A team of researchers at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University recently created RECAP, a plug-in that works with the Firefox Web browser. Once a PACER user installs RECAP, it automatically uploads any document he accesses via his PACER account to a public archive, which is accessible for free. If a PACER document is already available in the free database, RECAP directs the user to the free version, saving PACER users money and building a robust free database.

Likewise, the Web site obtains every document from each federal district court's Electronic Case Filing system on a daily basis and uploads it to a free repository., Justia and RECAP are all focused on bringing a critical mass of legal data online.

There are also concerns about the dataset on Google Scholar. Google uploads new cases frequently, but is not as up-to-the-minute as the subscription-based Web sites.

Still, for lawyers who can afford only limited subscriptions to Westlaw or Lexis, or for the many in-house law departments without unlimited access to subscription services, Google Scholar could be a godsend.

Adele Nicholas

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